Can I Get Unemployment If I'm On Leave Without Pay?

Many leaves are for medical reasons.
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As generally understood, a leave of absence from work is a mutually agreed-upon period of time during which you don’t report for work. Leaves of absence are generally unpaid, but under some circumstances, insurance benefits are continued. Most states specifically exempt unpaid leaves of absence from eligibility for unemployment insurance benefits, but there are exceptions, generally based on the circumstances surrounding the nature of the leave and the employment relationship.

Unemployment Insurance

    Funded almost exclusively by employer premium payments, state unemployment insurance funds are intended to provide some temporary income to people who are unemployed due to reasons beyond their control as they seek other employment. While receiving benefits, they must be able and available to work. People who voluntarily leave their jobs are generally ineligible for unemployment benefits, although many states recognize that there are some just causes for voluntarily quitting your job which justify paying benefits. Employees who request and are granted an unpaid leave, though, are generally considered to have done so voluntarily, and the reason for which they’re taking the leave usually renders them unable and unavailable for work. This is why the answer to the question, ”Can I get unemployment while I’m on leave without pay?” is usually a curt “No.”

Family and Medical Leave

    One of the most common reasons for taking an unpaid leave of absence is medical: to care for yourself or a member of the family during a period of protracted illness or recovery from injury. A related reason is childbirth and to care for a new baby for the first few weeks after birth. Most American workers today take such leaves under the provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which permits most employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a year for such reasons without losing their employer-provided health insurance coverage. However, people on FMLA leave are not eligible for unemployment.

Employer-Imposed Leaves

    Sometimes an unpaid leave of absence is imposed by an employer, either as a cost-containment or a disciplinary measure. Depending on the length of the leave, you may be eligible for unemployment benefits. If you’ve been suspended, whatever the reason, it didn’t measure up to the standards of “discharge for cause,” which would disqualify you from benefits. If the leave is a cost-containment measure, often called a furlough, you may also be eligible for benefits because you’re unemployed for reasons beyond your control.

Other Circumstances

    Even if there’s no set date of return, as with a medical leave, if there’s a reasonable probability that the employee will be able to return to work – that is, that there’s still an employment relationship – then there’s generally no eligibility for unemployment benefits. One of the elements of a bona fide leave of absence is that the employer and employee have agreed to its terms and conditions, and it preserves the relationship between them. For example, an employer may misclassify a layoff or even a discharge as a leave, perhaps to prevent a person from claiming unemployment benefits. The leave hasn’t really been mutually agreed upon, the duration is indeterminate in nature and the probability of returning to work is doubtful, there’s a good possibility that your state’s unemployment division would consider the leave a layoff or even a discharge, and proceed accordingly on a claim for benefits. Thus, if your employer alerts you that you’re on unpaid leave, and to call in a few weeks about returning to work, go ahead and file your claim.

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